You know a new technology is on the minds of a lot of people when it appears in a commercial during a major sporting event like the NBA Finals. So Samsung’s TV ad featuring an ostrich using a Gear VR headset to take flight was a major step forward for consumer virtual reality.
But just because big tech companies like Samsung – and Facebook, its partner on the Gear VR – want something to become mainstream doesn’t mean it will. For all the gee-whiz excitement that VR can generate by immersing people in experiences they can’t get anywhere else – like soaring above the clouds and being able to leisurely look all around you, as that ostrich does in the ad – the technology’s adoption has been fairly tepid. A lot is going to have to happen, on a lot of different fronts, before VR can truly become a part of most people’s lives.
Between their launches last year and the end of March, according to SuperData Research, consumers had purchased a combined total of about 7.7 million of the five most high-profile VR headsets – the Gear VR, Sony’s PlayStation VR, Google’s Daydream View, HTC’s Vive, and the Oculus Rift. Even though SuperData predicts that those numbers will rise to 15.9 million total headset sales by the end of 2017, those are not the numbers of a mainstream technology, especially when you consider that other data suggests little regular usage of those VR systems.
Think about it: How many people do you know own VR equipment, especially high-end systems like the Rift or Vive? Odds are the answer is zero. That’s even true in tech-centric places like Silicon Valley.
Facebook, which bought Oculus in 2012 for what ended up being around $3 billion, has been trying to change the game. This month alone, it has slashed the price of the Rift to an all-time low of $398 and launched the ability to broadcast Facebook Live video from inside Spaces, its social VR platform. Those moves are likely to bring a few more people into VR, but probably won’t change the overall dynamic all that much.
Nor does even Facebook expect it to. After all, earlier this year, CEO Mark Zuckerberg cautioned investors to be patient about the growth and profitability of VR, suggesting during a quarterly earnings call that the technology could take up to 10 years to hit massive adoption.
So how does the industry get there? Fast Company polled a group of industry experts and observers, and here’s what they think.
Notwithstanding the Rift price cut, many people think VR gear, especially high-quality systems, costs too much. The Vive, for example, costs $798, while the PSVR and Rift run $398. All three systems require being tethered with pricey computing hardware, either gaming-quality PCs in the case of the Rift and Vive, or the PlayStation 4 for the PSVR. Even inexpensive mobile VR headsets like the Gear VR and Daydream View require being connected to costly phones like Samsung’s Galaxy S8 or Google’s Pixel.
Alexis Macklin, an analyst with Greenlight Insights, pegs lower prices as the single-most important factor in building a mainstream user base for VR, pointing to a Greenlight survey in which 38% of those asked said the hardware cost was the biggest impediment to their buying a headset.
Neither HTC nor Sony have shown any indications they plan on dropping the price of their gear anytime soon. But one can expect that over the next year or two, consumers will be able to buy high-end VR gear, including a computer, for substantially less than $1,000. That will no doubt make a big difference.
Better, More Comfortable Gear
Besides the high prices, the most obvious shortcoming of today’s VR systems is the gear itself. While mobile systems like the Gear VR or Daydream View are fairly easy to use, they still require frequent updates, and they’re still somewhat bulky. The higher-end systems, which offer by far the best experience, are also hamstrung by being the most cumbersome: They are tethered to PCs by multiple wires, they require frequent updating, and there’s very little sense that they can be plugged in and used right out of the box, the way many consumer tech products can.
We’re still in the first generation of consumer VR, though, so some of those problems are certain to go away with subsequent generations – though no one knows when those will hit the market. Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash has talked of futuristic VR systems that are hard to distinguish from a normal pair of glasses, but he also acknowledges that we won’t be seeing that kind of gear for years to come.
In the shorter term, though, there are steps forward that will help a lot with making wearing a VR headset a better experience. Beyond getting rid of the wires, as Oculus, Vive, and others are promising to do with forthcoming new high-quality “standalone” headsets, perhaps the biggest advances would be in the optics and displays, said Gartner analyst Brian Blau.
“Today, some people have some amount of negative physical response when [using VR] headsets,” Blau said, “and improvements in the hardware can help with that to some degree.”
The main goal there would be to match VR displays’ capabilities to those of human vision, including offering eye-tracking tools that make it possible for users to look around them without moving their heads. Numerous companies are working on better displays, including Finland’s Varjo, which recently unveiled a prototype that promised to improve VR display resolution by as much as 60 times over that offered by systems like the Rift and Vive, and which is expected to include onboard eye-tracking.
Blau also sees a lot of promise in headsets that eschew the big, bulky form factors of just about all of today’s systems. He thinks that the industry made a mistake by focusing on wide headsets that wrap around users’ faces, and thinks that smaller, more glasses-like gear could do a better job of being ergonomically comfortable. “You’ll probably see a whole bunch of different ones, like ski goggles, sports goggles, and safety goggles,” he said. “It’s likely we’ll see displays being integrated with lots of different form factors.”
VR at the Mall
To Stephanie Llamas, a VR analyst at SuperData Research, content is the key to more users.
She, like others, believes that one way many people will be exposed to VR is through what’s called location-based virtual reality. Businesses like The Void and Nomadic are building experience centers in places like malls and movie theaters that invite customers to work their way through complex VR narratives, for a price – the future’s budding take on the immersive multiplex.
This is still a niche sector, and it’s unclear if these companies will end up making much headway in the competitive world of date-night and family entertainment. If they do, though, they could become a massive gateway, offering many people their first taste of what VR can really do.
“It’s going to get people in headsets and get people understanding what VR is,” Llamas said. “Truthfully, most people don’t know what VR is. [They think it’s] gimmicky sci-fi. You can’t know unless you try it. [Location-based VR will] be a great way to get people understanding it, and trying it, and wanting it in their homes.”
“Universally Appealing” Content
Much of VR’s early focus has been on games, and attracting hard-core gamers. Those are the kinds of early adopters that can get new systems off the ground, but there’s not likely enough of them to support an entire ecosystem. That’s why Llamas thinks another big step to bringing wide audiences to VR is to convince people that there’s more to the medium than just games.
One area that has a lot of potential, she says, is animated, immersive VR storytelling, especially when it’s extremely easy for users to watch, “where you just put on the headset and you’re inside it.”
As an example, she lauded Baobab Studios, a Silicon Valley-based VR filmmaker run by Hollywood and game industry veterans that has produced some of the most popular VR content thus far.
Naturally, Maureen Fan, Baobab’s cofounder and CEO, agrees that more, and higher-quality, VR content is the top factor that will lead to more users. “That’s the number-one thing that needs to happen,” Fan said. “Content is what drives adoption.”
This, of course, is a common refrain. For example, in lowering the price of the Rift, Oculus cited the idea that its content library had reached a size – 500 total titles – where there’s enough choice to keep anyone coming back for more.
“As the VR industry matures,” Fan said, “the novelty of VR will eventually wear off. You need not just the sizzle, but the meat.”
At Baobab, the meat is traditional three-act storytelling that leads viewers to care about the characters, and want to see them over and over again – even if the stories are fairly short. The trick, she added, is choosing stories with “universally appealing” themes that will attract everyone, from your mother to your grandmother to your brother.
She pointed to the company’s third project, the forthcoming “Rainbow Crow,” which tackles the concept of self-sacrifice in times of darkness. Similarly, its first film, “Invasion!,” showcased a heroic bunny who saves Earth from hapless aliens who arrive hell-bent on destruction.
It helps, of course, if those characters are played by celebrities. Which is why the company’s three major projects so far have featured voice acting by the likes of Ethan Hawke, Elizabeth Banks, and John Legend.
Baobab’s deep ties to Hollywood and the games industry have helped it win funding from headset makers like Samsung and HTC, which has given it the runway to look well down the line and have confidence it can plan for future projects. That’s not a luxury many VR content makers have, Fan said.
In order for there to be more and better content, there needs to be funding, she said – a dynamic that’s a problem since many venture capitalists prefer to invest in technology over content.
Nonprofits put a lot of money in VR documentary projects, Fan argued, but there’s not enough of either to account for mainstream interests. Nor are there enough gamers to help VR become mainstream. Solving this funding dilemma will be a major hurdle the industry must overcome if it’s to reach its potential, she said.
“The holy grail is when content funds itself,” she argued, “when creators make enough money off the content that” they don’t need outside help.
That’s the strategy behind projects like Fox’s “The Martian VR Experience,” a 20-minute accompaniment to the hit Ridley Scott movie that the studio hoped viewers would pay for. There’s no official data on the project’s sales, but SteamSpy, a site that provides estimates of VR content sales, suggests only a few thousand people got to play the role of Mark Watney on Mars in high-quality VR. And while there have been a few VR titles that have earned more than $1 million, it’s still a small number, and nowhere near what’s required to prop up an entire content ecosystem.
That’s where funding programs from the likes of Oculus – which has committed to invest $500 million in VR content – will help. But to hear Fan tell it, there needs to be more, and broader, funding sources for there ever to be enough content to satisfy the masses.
The Killer App
When a new technology comes along, everyone instantly wants to know what will take it to mass adoption. That’s a question about VR that people have been wondering for years, decades even.
It’s probably too early to know, and in a way, that’s probably good given that there aren’t enough users. Until hardware prices come down significantly, there likely won’t be enough users to support even the greatest content.
But Macklin of Greenlight Insights said that things are looking up. A year ago, 20 percent of those the firm surveyed said they’d tried VR. This year, that number rose to 38 percent. “VR will have a slow, steady climb until it hits [the] mainstream,” Macklin said. But until there’s better hardware and lower prices, she said, it won’t matter how good the content is.
At Facebook, though, there’s no questioning what it’s going to take to get mass adoption for VR: users understanding how the technology can be used to bring them closer to the people they know and love.
That’s the impetus behind Facebook Spaces, the company’s social VR initiative, and it’s why it just launched the ability to broadcast live video from Spaces.
Facebook sees VR as the “ultimately communication device,” said Mike Booth, head of product for Spaces. “I think the biggest thing is just letting people see what this weird VR thing is,” he said. “It’s not just for blowing up robots and shooting zombies. It’s, hey, there’s my friends having fun in VR, and I want to join in. I want to participate, and see how this all works. Maybe I’ll want to go out and get my own VR headset.”
And while Booth acknowledges that there aren’t enough folks looking at VR yet as a way to have meaningful connection with their friends and family, he’s hopeful that what the company’s doing with Spaces, and what others are doing with social VR, can change that dynamic sooner rather than later. In short, Booth argues, “people are really the killer app in VR.”